Beets probably originated in the Mediterranean area, spreading eastward in prehistoric times, with a secondary region of development in the Near East. Wild beets occur widely over the Mediterranean lands, Asia Minor, the Caucasus, and the Near East.
Ancient people ate only the greens using the root of the wild beet for medicinal purposes. By the second and third centuries, the Romans cooked beet roots as a substitute for cabbage.
By the 14th century, English recipes refer to beet roots. In the 16th century, the improved beet was known as the Roman Beet and made its way into Northern Europe and France from Italy. German literature from 1558 makes reference to eating beet roots.
Beet roots were not considered important vegetables until after 1800 when they became more popular on the European continent. Only two kinds, Red and Long Red, were listed by English seedsmen. U.S. seedsmen listed only one variety in the early 1800s. By 1828, four kinds were listed in the U.S.
The Bassano variety, still grown today, was common in Italy more than a hundred years ago. The Flat Egyptian, an American production, also cultivated today, was first grown around Boston about 1869. Other varieties grown in America were introduced more recently.
Garden beet colors range from extremely dark purplish red to bright vermilion to white. The roots of many varieties, when cut transversely, show distinct light and dark rings, like a target. Garden beets generally grow in the traditional turnip shape, but may also be elongated or cylindrical.